JONNY Lomax has traded one iconic Saints shirt for another in 2014 after being handed Paul Wellens’ number one jersey. Star sports editor Mike Critchley caught up with the young Billinger, ahead of him agreeing his new four-year contract at Saints, and got his insight on what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of such a long-serving custodian…
MC: It is the second year out of the last three that you have been handed an iconic Saints jersey. How do you feel about that and succeeding Paul Wellens at full back?
JL: Mixed emotions really, to be honest. To have the faith put in me to take over the number one shirt from the legend that is Paul Wellens is great. But by the same token, it is strange because I always looked up to Paul Wellens when I was growing up. For him to give me his blessing and make that public is massive for me, and we are still friends. But that is the kind of guy he is. For him to do that in person and put it out there shows that he is putting faith in me, and that is a great feeling.
MC: Does it help that Wello is still around?
JL: Definitely – he has played here that many years and can give me pointers on things that he thinks might help me. One of the biggest things when I first moved there was that I used to run around a lot and generally could not do all that running. He taught me a few ways where I can save energy here and there, and they are things that can make a difference. Again, it’s great to have him there – a figurehead on and off the pitch.
MC: What sort of distances does a modern full back cover on a match day?
JL: It is 100 metres a set back and forward, so you are looking at running 10k in a typical game the way that it is played now, especially with having to go side to side a lot. I am enjoying it at full back, and there is a lot more freedom to express yourself.
MC: You appeared to get a knock towards the end of last season. Is that why you didn’t appear for the England Knights?
JL: It was actually against Hull KR in the play-offs and I got squashed – it was almost a bit of a crusher tackle. Thankfully the hamstring stood up, but I pulled my abductor off the bone and had pretty bad nerve damage in it. The week before the Leeds game it was scanned and was not good, so it was a case of trying to get through it. If we had won it would have been the same for the semi – it was not too great. The abductor healed back up, so touch wood that is sorted now.
MC: None of us (who write) meant to be disparaging about your ability to play seven and the way you were still learning that role, but number one does suit you better doesn’t it?
JL: Yes, I think it gives me more freedom. When you play half back you have to think about the next play and the one after that. As much as you want to play what is in front of you, sometimes you have to think it’s a 60/40 play that might come off but think about the next play and field position. Playing one gives you the freedom to run around and play what you see, off the cuff, a bit more and try things. Sometimes playing in the halves you have to play a bit more structured and patient with it. At full back you can see things that are on and go for it.
MC: How important is Luke Walsh’s addition to the team generally, and to your game specifically?
JL: Walshy has settled in really well in pre-season and has looked like he has been here all the time. It is not like a new bloke – he is getting us around the field really well in training and things are looking good. That can only benefit the team and me personally. He is quite bossy, but he does not scream and shout. If you don’t do it he just tells you again. And if you don’t do what he wants you aren’t going to play, so you need to listen to him.
MC: Potentially it is a very young, fast back three going into this year isn’t it?
JL: Yes, we are all of a similar age, are quite excited to be involved and, potentially, if things go well and
people carry on improving we could be there as a back three for the
foreseeable future. Tommy and Swifty are both rapid wingers, enjoy the hard work as well and can both finish.
MC: The team has a pack that can put the fear of god into the opposition. That is going to lay a great platform isn’t it?
JL: There is a lot of depth in it too – it is not just that it is big, it is athletic too, with a lot of speed and skill in it. The way the young lads came in last year due to injury means we can count on them too. That has added depth.
MC: After five years of winning nothing, there appears to be a buzz around that this team could do something this year. Would you agree?
JL: Definitely. I think we showed at the back end of last year that we were a good team. It was just that we had a lot of injuries to key personnel. Every time we looked like we were getting going something would happen. To win things you need to be a good team, but you also need that bit of luck and that bounce of the ball.
But we had bad luck with injuries, didn’t get much in the way of the bounce of the ball and not many decisions went our way. We have all improved as players this off-season, and the signings will improve the team too. We just need that bit of luck and to stay injury free.